Those were the days, my friends...

ABHIJIT NAG

I arrived in Singapore with only US$50 in my wallet in 1988 to join The New Paper as it was about to be launched.

We Indians weren't allowed to go abroad with more than US$50 back then. Landing at Changi Airport, I felt utterly alone.

There was no one I knew in Singapore. Carrying my suitcase and bag, I stepped into the arrival lounge, scanning the faces of strangers with an anxious eye.

A tiny placard caught my attention; it had my name on it. My employers had come through. A man was waiting to pick me up and take me to a hotel, as promised.

We pulled into the driveway of a big hotel. Checking in, I was spellbound when I entered the room booked by my employers. I had never slept in greater luxury. Marvelling at the perfectly laid out bed, I looked out of the floor-to-ceiling window at the tall buildings outside. The glass towers seemed to be reaching for the sky.

My bemusement continued the next morning. Waking up at the Riverview Hotel, I went to The New Paper office for the first time. It was in Times House. The building, which no longer exists, was on Kim Seng Road, within walking distance from the hotel.

The office wasn't like anything we had in Calcutta. It was a virtual United Nations. There were Americans, Britons, Australians working in the office as well as Singaporeans, Malaysians, Filipinos and Indians.

The New Paper was on the ground floor, directly below The Straits Times. While some of The New Paper staff had formerly worked for The Straits Times, almost all the foreigners were newcomers. I was intimidated by the sight of everyone working at computer terminals - and appalled that I was expected to do the same. Computers were alien to me.

Though I had seen them in Calcutta newspaper offices, we journalists were not expected to touch them. We still wrote on typewriters and sent our stories to the compositors. Newspapers couldn't be produced without compositors in the old days.

They typed our typewritten stories on big Linotype machines for printing. When computers came and replaced the Linotype machines, compositors were no longer needed. Journalists themselves could type the stories on computers, as they did in Singapore.

But the trade unions didn't allow that in Calcutta because then the compositors would be jobless.

So, they were put to work on computers instead. The transition couldn't have been easy if their experience was anything like mine. Sitting down at a computer terminal, I was like a fish out of water, floundering at every key stroke. I had been a dab hand at manual typewriters, pounding the keys like any veteran newspaperman.

But computers were different. They didn't take a beating like old, manual typewriters. Computers were delicate, their keys to be touched as lightly as a butterfly settling on a flower.

They were not for me. I wanted to throw in the towel and go back to Calcutta but hung on for the money. Calcutta paid far less than Singapore. How could I go back?

After a trying day at the office, I used to walk back to my hotel. The nights were spent alone, glued to the goggle-box.

I first read about The Straits Times in a book about newspapers I borrowed from the British Council Library in Calcutta. The Statesman also featured in the book. Both the newspapers had been founded in the 19th century when Singapore and India were under British rule. The colonial legacy was still evident at The Statesman with its liveried attendants and Western-style lunches complete with soups and desserts.

At The Statesman, the editors sat in their own rooms, seldom visiting reporters and sub-editors. Chauffeur-driven company cars ferried them back and forth from the office.

So, I was quite surprised to run across The New Paper editor Peter Lim on the street one day. He beamed at me when I greeted him.

Short and fit, in smart casuals, eyes gleaming behind glasses, he looked relaxed, walking alone along Orchard Road.

Maybe because we didn't move in the same circles, I never saw a Statesman editor on foot outside the office. They were always being chauffeured around.

The New Paper newsroom included experienced Singaporean editors like Sylvia Tan, Siva Arasu, Hedwig Alfred and Agatha Koh grooming bright young reporters from Singapore and Malaysia. While Singaporeans produced the stories, what appeared in the paper was the American rewrite. Seasoned American journalists like John Lang, Bill Chase and Stroubie Smith from well-known publications such as the US News & World Report and the Washington Examiner edited the stories before they appeared in The New Paper.

It was their job to make the stories simple, easy to understand. That was why The New Paper was launched - to report the news in a simple language understandable to anyone with a high school education.

It was started by Singapore Press Holdings not because the company wanted such a newspaper.

The New Paper was the wish fulfilment of a higher power. Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew didn't tolerate criticism by the press; he expected the press to play a supportive role, helping the government inform and educate the people on policy matters.

The Straits Times did just that. But the late Mr Lee wanted an English newspaper more easily understood by the workers. Hence The New Paper.

The Americans were hired to make the language both simple and snappy.

We Indians worked as sub-editors, laying out, checking, photo-captioning and headlining stories vetted by the copy editors, the American rewrite men.

There were Singaporean sub-editors also. Some were excellent at layout and page design.

Chantal was the most colourful, a fashionista who specialised in fashion spreads.

Oft-smiling, unflappable Siew Chong, with bobbed hair and a little over five feet, was as neat in her page designs as in her appearance. She served as our mentor.

Chief sub-editor Ng Whay Hock, our boss, was a thin, bespectacled, meticulous sub-editor who smiled occasionally and spoke in a low voice.

"Don't thank me. I try to be fair," he told me when I thanked him for commending my language skills in my performance appraisal report.

Fairly enough, in the same report, he noted my layout and design skills needed improvement. With time running out on my three-year contract, a question haunted me: would my contract be renewed?

I must have been painfully needy, my anxiety obvious, for Bill Chase, the American foreign editor, told me one day: "Don't worry. You will keep your job."

In the end, there were big changes. The Americans all left, with one exception: Paul Zach stayed on as a copy editor. The Singaporean women editors who had lent a hand in the early days moved to other positions in the company. Peter Lim left and was succeeded by P.N. Balji as editor.

I alone among the Indians stayed on, grateful to have my contract renewed for three more years. From a sub-editor, I became a copy editor. Newspaper veterans might harrumph, "Some difference!" The journalist who edits stories and lays out pages is called a sub-editor in Britain and a copy editor in America. But the copy editor played a different role from the sub-editor at the Singapore Press Holdings publications. The copy editor was the rewrite person, editing and polishing the reporters' stories. The sub-editor then added the headline and photo caption and laid out the story after further editing and trimming if necessary.

I liked my new job. I still had to double as a sub-editor, laying out simple pages if needed. But words, not layouts, became my main concern as a copy editor.

I was expected to make the stories as readable and easy to understand as possible besides fact-checking and getting everything right.

Of course, it was a tall order, and I couldn't perform prodigies, but I liked the challenge and tinkering with words.

I fully agree with the following lines, which I first saw in Time magazine: "Of all those arts in which the wise excel, Nature's chief masterpiece is writing well."

I love the English language with all the passion of the nerd for the belle - unrequitedly. I am not a natural-born writer. I sweat over words and phrases, get my prepositions - and God knows what else - wrong.

But I enjoyed working as a copy editor, rewriting stories, mulling over words and phrases, mouthing the words softly to check how they sounded, whether there was rhythm and flow. One problem for The New Paper was that, as the morning daily, The Straits Times was the first with the news.

The New Paper had to find a fresh angle to carry the story in the afternoon. It ceased to labour under that disadvantage during the First Gulf War (Aug 2, 1990 - Feb 28, 1991).

As an afternoon daily, The New Paper could carry morning news breaks about the war that the Straits Times couldn't when it went to press at night.

The New Paper capitalised on not only news breaks but war coverage heavy in human interest stories and graphics.

It had talented artists and other staff who did a great job under the supervision of the young foreign editor Rosnah Ahmad. Circulation soared.

The New Paper continued to thrive after the war. By then, it had developed a loyal readership who enjoyed its lively coverage, especially of football.

The paper remained popular even after it ceased to be an afternoon publication and became a morning paper.

There were other changes. The New Paper newsroom moved from the ground floor to the fifth floor of Times House.

We stopped working in the morning, starting in the evening instead, once we ceased to be an afternoon paper.

The Big Desk, comprising The New Paper editors, would meet around 5pm to discuss what should appear in the paper.

They would joke, chat, brainstorm, pitch stories, and finally agree on the cover and other pages. It was time to get to work.

We would knock off well past midnight, around 1.30am or even later, when the paper went to press.

The self-driven would drive off in their cars while the rest of us - the "car-less" - would wait for a lift home in an office car or van.

As the years passed, new faces arrived. All bright, smart and talented enough to make my wife wonder - and me agree - how on earth I got into the paper.

"All things must pass," as George Harrison sang. It's been a long time since I was a copy editor at The New Paper.

But, though the years have flown, the memories remain. Those were the days, my friend, as Mary Hopkin sang, those were the days!

tabla@sph.com.sg

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